Project Canterbury

Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.

with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.


I HAVE been requested, by members of the family of the late Dr. de Koven, and by the Messrs. Appleton, his publishers, to write a short preface to this volume. If I have any qualification for the task, it will be found in the love that I bore my dear friend and in my reverence for his memory. Really, no preface is needed to anything that may be, now or hereafter, published of his; nor can good accrue from such a thing, except to the writer, who is fortunate in having his name associated with that of so illustrious a man; for something of the light that shone so gloriously in that noble life must be cast on any one who does an office in memory of him. But I defer to the wishes which have been expressed, and am glad of the opportunity of calling attention to what the Messrs. Appleton have done. These gentlemen, reverencing Dr. de Koven as all good men must, and impressed by his lifelong devotion to Christian education, made, with their customary generosity, a remarkably liberal proposal to his family, undertaking to publish a volume of his sermons at their own expense, and to give the entire profits to the Memorial Endowment Fund of Racine College. They say:

"We have great pleasure in making this proposition, and trust, if accepted, the results may be large, as we appreciate the noble work he has done for education and religion, and we hope a fund will be secured to perpetuate his useful work to all time."

There are many in our Church who, in reading these words, will recall other services rendered by these excellent gentlemen to the cause of Christian education, particularly in the South and West; and a request to aid them in the present work was one which I could not decline.

But what shall this preface contain? Obviously, it can not be a memoir. The time will come, no doubt, when some one will write the story of that life, a life destined to stand forth more grandly, year after year, on the horizon of the past; and, when that shall have been done, men will see that he was, as it were, "sanctified from his mother's womb"; they will perceive how, even from mere boyhood, he dedicated himself to God's service; how clear was that call which drew him from the world and destined him to the priesthood; how striking were the early signs of his vocation; [1] how entire was his devotion to the work of the ministry; how loyal he was, in every thought, word, and act, to that branch of Christ's Holy Catholic Church in which he passed the time of his sojourn here. But, in this brief introduction, I propose to dwell on two points only—his zeal in the work of Christian education, and the sanctity of his life as priest and pastor. It may be said that, from the day of his entering the General Theological Seminary to the hour of his death, the work of teaching was always in his thoughts. With him it was a controlling desire, a passion, to inculcate that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, and without which mere intellectual culture must prove a failure. While yet a student in the seminary, he aided in establishing what was known as a "Ragged School," and in that school no teacher was more zealous or successful than he. I well remember it, for I was in the Seminary with him; and a more unpromising set of boys could hardly have been collected from the streets of New York. Among us seminary graduates there are traditions of that school, and of the dreadful time the men had with the swarm of uncouth ragamuffins whom they gathered together on Sunday afternoons in the "Long Room." But how lovingly did James de Koven work with those poor outcasts! Nor, indeed, without result; for, years afterward, at one of our General Conventions, a clergyman requested to be presented to him, and told him that he was one of the very boys whom he had taught in that Ragged School! What a reward for the great heart, the loving soul! But, to continue: he was ordained deacon at Middletown, Connecticut, August 6, 1854, by the Right Rev. John Williams.

Thereupon he received a call to a charming parish in Brooklyn, and another to an attractive work at Lower Red Hook on the Hudson River; but he declined them, and decided to accept a position as professor at Nashotah House, in Wisconsin. He arrived there on the 15th of September, 1854. In his diary we find this note:

"November 15, 1854. My Parish School opened to-day. Thank God! May He bless it and make it succeed!"

This school was at Delafield, about five miles from Nashotah, where also he had under his pastoral charge a little church, St. John Chrysostom's; and so he was deep already in his favorite work. We find in his journal memoranda of gifts for the school, and pledges toward its endowment, coupled with expressions of gratitude to Almighty God for whatever help and encouragement he had that way. Ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Kemper, September 23,1855, he spent five years at Nashotah and Delafield, his life a scene of self-sacrifice and his days spent in incessant and exhausting toil. While fulfilling his duty as professor at Nashotah, he gave part of every day to his school, five miles away, going forth and back, often on foot, through furious snow-storms, and without regular meals, or any regard to his health, preaching and teaching, holding Bible classes, baptizing children, burying the dead, and having no one to assist him. Thus it went on, writes one very near to him: "Work, work, work, until it almost makes one faint to think how early in life his self-discipline began, and how little of pleasure or recreation came to him, save in the consciousness of duty well performed."

It was not strange that a man with such a spirit in him, and such a bent toward one department of the Master's work, should have been soon called to a wider sphere. In the year of our Lord 1859 he was elected Warden of Racine College, though only twenty-eight years of age. He went to the place, and there he staid till the day of his death, March 19, 1879, resisting every effort to draw him away, and giving his life, his splendid powers, his spiritual and personal endowments, and, at last, by will, his fortune, to that institution. And how it grew under his culture! And what a monument is it, to-day, of the zeal and devotion of that man! Nay, if there be any right feeling in us who remain, if any faith in the value of a godly learning, if any conviction that it is the office of the Church to guide and bless the work of the teacher, then shall we deem it our duty to see that Racine College be so well endowed and thoroughly built up as to stand for ages, the memorial of her indomitable Warden.

What Dr. de Koven believed he believed with all his heart; he was a man of intense convictions, and among them none were stronger than those which he held as to the teaching office of the Church. His diary abounds in memoranda which disclose the enthusiastic habit of his soul. At the close of each week something is sure to be found inscribed, as thus: "The week is ended. Amen. Praise God for His mercies. May He preserve my health and strength to do this work! I am sometimes very, very weary; but, if my work succeeds, it matters not. This constant teaching is very treadmill work; but, if I only see the result and can do the work right, and faithfully in God's sight, I shall have my reward." In another place, when two of the young men whom he had taught were about to be ordained, he wrote as follows: "O day of days! How happy I am! How I thank God for saving these precious souls, for being able to bring them to Him!"

Thus he did his work, ever looking unto Jesus, always thinking of Christ and the Church, and still laboring as to the Lord and not as to men; and this was the key to his success as a priest and pastor in that household of faith which he loved with all his heart.

I have not read so much as one of the sermons which follow; it matters not: without having seen or heard them, I know that there must be in them more than enough to make them precious to us. For these contain the beliefs, the uttered thoughts of a pure, sweet, and noble spirit; of a man who led his life close to our Lord; who was imbued with that old theology which alone deserves to be called theology; who loved it as one must love the form which realizes to him, in scientific terms and clear outline, what God has revealed to us in the Gospel of His Son. To have given such a man as James de Koven to this age, is glory enough for the Church of one generation; we need not expect to live to see his peer. To us he is especially precious, as being the exponent and natural outcome of a system, apart from which such men as he are impossible. There is, and always will be, somewhere, such a system: characterized by a certain aggregate of convictions, a habit of thought, a way of looking at things, a profound realization of the supernatural; and this, when accepted by persons of refinement and culture, and of intense devotional turn, forms a marked and peculiar individuality. There are rival systems, which act but to repress the burning desire of the soul, and dash cold water on the trembling flame; and these do their fatal work with logical precision, so that men pine away and are dwarfed, under hard, chill ban and iron rigor, till the beautiful life is choked and mere traces alone are left of the nobler thing that might have been. But, fortunately, the lines fell to him in places where the oppressor, though he may curtail the sphere of action, can not reach the sanctuary of the inner life. His natural gifts were exalted by fearless study of those old Catholic fathers, whom we are commanded by our Mother to revere as our masters; his convictions were those of one who knew the ground thoroughly; his faith was supported by the testimony of many a holy doctor and teacher; and thus he throve and grew, as a light, kindled from above and shining more and more unto the perfect day. Others have been formed in that same mould; others will hereafter be formed in it among us, unless the mould be broken, which God forbid! There are now resting, side by side, in their narrow beds, in the cemetery at Memphis, where the dead of the pestilence were laid last year, the relics of those who were one in mind and thought with him, and lived and died and triumphed over death by virtue of the same faith and the same aggregate of convictions. What would the Church be worth if she could not bring forth sons and daughters such as these? What needs she more, who can show us such jewels?

There must be, in generous souls, intense sympathy with such a man as this. One of our clergy, [The Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., D. D.] in a frank and cordial letter written in response to a request for his help in the effort to secure an endowment for Racine College, and promising full sympathy and aid in the prosecution of that design, seems to have struck with skill the key-note of that life. He says:

"I do this for three distinct reasons:

"1. That the manliness and purity of the life of James de Koven, whom to know was to honor and love, may have a lasting and influential memorial in the Church. In these days of timidity for truth, as God gives it to us to see it, the career of such a man is both a rebuke and a stimulus. Let his name perpetuate in the work to which he gave his life the characteristics of which it is the synonym.

"2. In these days of doubt it is not a little thing to have an educational institution in which culture and devotion are not divorced. This is to me a sacred remembrance of Dr. de Koven, which I could wish continued by the success of your proposed endowment. With equal consecration did he pursue the path of truth, led ever on by the pillar of covenant light to worship a recognized and realized Lord, in whose person he perceived all truth to be concentered, and whose shekinah was the crown of a mercy-seat which inclosed the law of God. His skill in all the learning of the ancients did not divert him from the simplicity of the truth as it is in Jesus.

"3. To these I add a third consideration, which leads me to wish you well. The discipline of Dr. de Koven was that of the accomplished reconciliation. He ruled by love. In the development of this spirit among his students was found the fulfilling of the law. If you can succeed in contriving such a regimen by making his name the talisman of 'Racine's' future, you will have done a good work in the cause of general education, and, more than all, in the wider government of the Church at large.

"I offer these words as my contribution to a movement which I would gladly encourage in a more substantial way were it in my power. But I most of all delight to write them to one who, through more years than measured my privilege, enjoyed the friendship of so noble, truthful, and faithful a man as was James de Koven."

It was a great sorrow to me that he refused to come to us when called to Trinity Parish, New York. That call was not, as has been currently stated, to take the place of one of our clergy, then recently deceased; but he was invited to fill a position of peculiar honor and responsibility, made for him in particular, close to myself, his loving friend, and willing to learn from him. But he said, No; and again and again he made that response, declining, at one time, the rectorship of the Church of the Advent in Boston; at another, that of the first parish in Cincinnati; and, only the day before his death, writing to the Vestry of St. Mark's, Philadelphia; and still as ever refusing to be drawn away from his beloved Racine. I could say nothing against it, however, after reading what he wrote to me, privately, in justification of his course. Of personal advancement he never once thought; nor of interest; nor did he consider his overtaxed strength and failing health; [2] nor did he balance questions curiously as others might have done. He wrote to me, so simply and so characteristically:

"I have no doubt as to my duty in this matter, nor do I write thus as if regretting what I felt I must do. I was not weighing this opportunity of usefulness and that, and trying to determine which was the greater. It was only what, on the whole, seemed intrusted to me by Him to whom there is nothing little or great except the doing His will."

Is it strange that the influence of such a man as this should have been wide and strong? I know of several persons, members of Protestant bodies outside our Church, who announced their intention to unite with our parish if he should accept the call to it. Why did these, and many like them, thus believe in the truth and thorough reality of James de Koven? They felt that men of his stamp are needed now. In these days, when the skeptic insults on one side, and the pseudo-liberal seduces on the other; when there are those in high places who hardly dare to say what they believe; when the tendency is to explain away the "holy mysteries," and to send us backward from the glorious light of the Gospel into a naturalism whose nakedness is scantily draped by Christian terms and symbols—it is wholesome to light on men who have convictions and live out in the life what is in the heart. And it is well for us to bear in mind that testimony to his thorough reality and solid Christian nobleness, when recalling the deep wrong that was done him some years ago.

It is well known that, by the manipulation of a peculiar machinery, easily rendered subservient to political and partisan ends, James de Koven was pronounced unfit to be a Bishop in the Church of God. It is not so well known with what supreme disgust, with what deep indignation, great numbers recoiled from the sound of that lie, and rued a decision so disgraceful. But, since that day, reverence for his life and character has been deepening among us, and many have sought an opportunity to clear themselves of complicity with the unhappy transaction to which I refer. Wisdom is certain to be justified of her children; and the voice gathers strength from year to year, which reverses the decision of the series of petty tribunals before which the glorious servant of the Most High God, that peerless orator, that deeply-read theologian, that saintly confessor of the faith was, unhappily, arraigned. The time is coming when men will wish that the thing were forgotten, and when it will be held infamous to asperse his memory with the old accusations, and dastardly to pursue him, as they did in his lifetime, with epithets drawn from the vocabulary of partisan malice. Holy, just, wise, learned, eloquent; a "loyal soul and true"; true to God, true to the Church of his baptism, true to his sacred calling, he lived and died. The wrong that was done him is past undoing now; there is no place for repentance, though men seek it carefully with tears. But he has his consolation for all that he endured, in the light of that Face which he sought. Let no one think that such men frequently appear among us. They are few; scattered, one by one, along the line of the history of the Church, they appear at intervals, rare, egregious. We have but one Andrewes, one Ken, one Keble. One suffices for a while; a little salt keeps much fresh. Such a life is like a high-water mark; it shows how full .the tide may flow. From the standard thus set, the sluggish, the timid, the indolent, will keep as far away as they can. No matter; the mark is there to show what may be realized among us; that which has been may be once more. But when? God knows.

And now a few words as to the following discourses. There are some things which it were well for men to do themselves, instead of leaving them to be done by others after they are gone. It is so especially with the publishing of sermons. They are generally written in haste and under pressure; they need revision; no one can do what ought to be done, if the writer does not. In the case of Dr. de Koven the choice was between refusing an earnest request from many quarters, and putting before the public what he might have deemed unfit for close inspection. But we choose the latter course; and, in doing so, would call the attention of the reader to the fact that the following discourses are printed from unrevised manuscripts, and exactly as he left them; no one has dared to touch them; they are in the very state in which they came from his pen. It should also be remembered that he preached without notes—not without preparation, but entirely without manuscript, and his greatest sermons were delivered in that way. It was his habit, afterward, to make memoranda of what he had said, with the intention of filling them out when he could find time; and of these notes of sermons already preached there remain some six volumes—mere skeletons of discourses, with remarks and observations thrown in here and there to show the train of thought. He had been often requested to publish, but put it off on account of the pressure of his duties, until it was too late. The sermons selected are, with one or two exceptions, of recent date; some have a special interest. One was preached on St. Peter's Day, A. D. 1868, before the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the chapel of St. Augustine's College at Canterbury, on the text, "That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me." Another was preached in Trinity Chapel, New York, in 1874, just after he had undergone one of those ordeals which are torture to a sensitive soul like his; it is on the text, "Thou shalt hide them privily by Thine own Presence from the provoking of all men: Thou shalt keep them secretly in Thy tabernacle from the strife of tongues." This sermon he wrote out, instead of preaching it extemporaneously, fearing lest something might be misquoted or incorrectly reported. It was after his famous speech in the Convention at Baltimore, and before his election to the Episcopate, by the Diocese of Illinois, in 1875. There are some earlier sermons. They are arranged in correct order and the dates are given. In doing this, we have done all that is in our power. Who can convey an idea, to one who never saw or heard him, of the effect produced by that impassioned manner, and that wonderful voice, which, now ringing like a clarion, and anon sinking to the lowest, gentlest tones, thrilled the soul and sounded depths within men which perhaps in their case may never be touched again by mortal speech?

Yet surely we shall all be the better for communing with that spirit even under these imperfect forms; for being thus brought in contact with that lovely life, so pure, so calm, so sweet, so grand, so true. It was made what it was by God's discipline; a life whose natural desires were crossed, a life filled with reproaches; the life of one spoken against, assailed, denounced by men who knew not what they said; a life of hard work, vast responsibilities, and hourly cares; and thus made a gentle life, a life rooted and grounded in God, spiritual, detached from the world. Alas, my brother! Thy lot is with the Saints, indeed—thy place among the blessed; but we are left behind, in our dim journey, to learn from thee, and such as thou, how God lifts men, by hardness and suffering, to a place in His Everlasting Kingdom. O patient soul! rare character, whom discipline made what thou art! O man greatly beloved, who didst not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when rebuked of Him; whose way toward thy Master was safe and direct; now dost thou rest in thy God, "to whom nothing is great or small but the doing His will." And to us it shall suffice if we see thee once more in the celestial city, where all is calm and unshaken, and where no cloud rests upon their perfect day.

July 8, 1879.

[1] There remains a little book of poems written by him at the age of fourteen; one is entitled "The Reaper's Evening Hymn"; another, "Watch o'er us," dated on All-Saints' Day. When twelve years old he wrote an Epiphany hymn, which was printed at the request of the Rev. Francis Vinton, D. D., and sung by the children of Grace Church, Brooklyn Heights, at their festival on that day.

[2] The following, from the "Church Guardian," Omaha, is from the pen of Bishop Clarkson: "There is one fact about the translation of this good man to Paradise that ought to be known, and that is this: He stood by his duty in the face of death; he refused to leave his post in order to prolong his life. For several years Dr. de Koven knew that the labors and anxieties of his great work were affecting his brain; he frequently asked his physician whether such and such feelings that he experienced were indications of apoplexy; and they were. When the call came to him from Trinity Church, New York, he knew that a change of work and mode of life would relieve the fearful pressure, and most probably prolong his days. And the question that he then discussed with his most intimate friends, and which he then decided, was, whether it was not a man's duty to stand in the lot where God had placed him, even though he might soon and suddenly fall? He stood by his post of danger, and God has taken him to Himself. So that by the example of his heroic death, as well as by the example of his holy life, he has helped on the cause of righteousness and faith among men."

Project Canterbury